Winter is approaching and to avoid getting flu, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) has advised that the public to get vaccinated.
“Vaccination is the most effective strategy to prevent influenza. Getting the flu vaccine can reduce flu illnesses, visits to the clinics or to doctors rooms, missed work and school due to flu, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations,” said the NICD.
The influenza season in South Africa occurs in the winter months and is expected to start in the coming weeks. On average, the season begins in the first week of June. However, recently, the season has started as early as the last week of April and as late as the first week of July.
The influenza vaccine for the 2018 season is currently available at public health facilities and at pharmacies.
“It takes about two weeks after vaccination for protective antibodies to develop, it is recommended that people get vaccinated as soon as possible to ensure that they are protected before influenza season starts,” said the NICD.
According to the NICD, the best time to get the flu vaccine is before the season starts between March-June but getting it later will protect individuals during the rest of the season.
Influenza viruses are constantly changing and immunity from vaccine lasts for about a year. It is therefore necessary to get vaccinated each year before the influenza season.
“The influenza vaccine that is licensed for use in South Africa covers three of the common influenza strains. Based on the information on the influenza strains that were circulating during the 2017 Southern Hemisphere influenza season, the 2018 vaccine for the Southern Hemisphere has been changed,” said the NICD.
Vaccination of people with higher risk of severe flu directly protects them from flu infections. Other vulnerable groups that can benefit from the flu vaccine include pregnant women, the elderly and people with chronic illnesses.
“Vaccinating pregnant women has been shown to provide protection to both mother and baby during the flu season. HIV-infected adults without severely weakened immune systems respond well to the vaccine too. Vaccination is also recommended for individuals aged 65 years and individuals with chronic illnesses like diabetes, lung disease, tuberculosis and heart disease,” said the NICD.
The NICD monitors the progression and severity of the influenza season through its surveillance sites throughout the country to provide real time information on season progression.
In South Africa, flu kills between 6 000 and 11 000 people every year. About half of those deaths are in the elderly, and about 30% in HIV-infected people.
During the flu season in South Africa, about 8-10% of patients hospitalised for pneumonia and 25% of patients with flu-like illness (fever and cough) will test positive for influenza.
Annual influenza epidemics result in an estimated three to five million cases of severe illness, and about 290 000 – 650 000 deaths globally.
“It is also essential to practice good hygiene by properly and frequently washing hands and protecting coughs and sneezes (coughing or sneezing into a tissue or an elbow) to help prevent the spread of seasonal influenza. People who have flu-like symptoms should stay at home to avoid infecting others,” said the NICD.